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Some Half-Baked Journalism About The Bethlehem Star And Jesus’ Date Of Birth

(Yes, I’m ditching the one-word post titles.)

There’s usually a story like this every December. This year, the Daily Telegraph reports that Australian astronomer Dave Reneke has calculated that Jesus was born on 17th June, 2 BC. I expect the science is all right, but what I do know is that the integration with the Bible – much vaunted in the article – is flawed.

Like Reneke, I don’t see this as undermining faith, but as boosting it – if only the theological side were right. It has long been suggested that the star the Magi followed was some kind of planetary conjunction, so to posit such an event between Venus and Jupiter in the night skies over Palestine at around the right time is nothing new.

My problem comes in making an assumption about dating Jesus’ birth from it. The article claims (without substantiation) that the best guesses for Jesus’ birth are in the 3 BC to 1 AD region. This surprised me, but perhaps scholarship has moved on from what I previously learnt, where a date nearer 6 BC was thought likely. However, the real fault is using the appearance of the star as a marker for the actual birth.

Why? Well, it’s interesting that Mr Reneke claims to work from Matthew’s Gospel, which tells the story of the Magi. He wrongly assumes they arrive (just like children’s nativity plays) at the time of the birth, along with the shepherds. You’ve seen the tableaux of a crowded manger scene, you know what I mean.

However, there is clear evidence in Matthew 2 that the Magi arrive later. First of all, in the Greek Jesus is no longer described as a baby but as a young child – a toddler, perhaps. Moreover, when Herod the Great hears about the birth of a new ‘King of the Jews’, his psychopathic order is to slaughter all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. It fits with the thought that Jesus had not been born in the immediately preceding time to the Magi’s arrival.

Others add further evidence that I don’t find convincing. They point out that in Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are now living in a house, not at the back of an inn, as when he was born, according to Luke. This implies they have moved on to a home, probably belonging to one of Joseph’s relatives. This evidence is unnecessary and also flawed. As Kenneth Bailey pointed out many years ago, Luke doesn’t use the Greek word for ‘inn’ in chapter 2 of his Gospel – he uses that later, when he recounts the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The word in chapter 2 isn’t the normal one for ‘house’ either, but it is more likely meant to be that, given the importance of hospitality in the culture. It would have been unthinkable for Joseph’s family not to put up him and his pregnant wife, even if it meant sharing the space with the family animals. It then appears from Matthew 2 that they remain there for a considerable season after the birth, rather than moving in with the relatives from a commercial inn. I suspect the KJV translators were too enamoured with the coaching inns of their day, and it became a traditional English translation.

But either way, I am convinced Jesus was more like a toddler by the time the Magi arrived. Dave Reneke may put the conjunction at 17 June 2 BC, but that theologically presupposes a birth a year or two earlier than that. If the science is right, then my old 6 BC date is out of the window – although one would need to bear in mind what we know about the regularity of the Roman taxation census every fourteen years, so I’m not ready to ditch it completely yet.

The real problem with the findings and the reporting of the research is a failure of dialogue between science and theology. The last thing I would do is question Reneke’s credibility as an astronomer, and I have no problem whatsoever with his motives. However, a little conversation with a New Testament scholar would have got us away from sensational claims about finding Jesus’ date of birth. We know it wasn’t 25th December, but Reneke’s research brings us no nearer knowing the actual date.

Worse than this – and this is not Reneke’s fault – is a glaring example of dumbing-down in the Telegraph. It’s a newspaper that usually rails against such attitudes, but the article contains a terrible example of it. Paragraph 3 reads:

If the team is correct, it would mean Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed.

Oh, spare me. Not only does this pander to contemporary credulity about astrology, it also risks the popular idiocy of muddling astronomy and astrology. My father reads the Telegraph. He is a member of the British Astronomical Association. If he has seen this piece, he will suddenly find himself in need of medication for hypertension.

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on December 12, 2008, in Religion, Science, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I didn’t intend to validate anyone’s birth date. The story was simply an ambitious scientific exercise, using modern astronomical software, to go back and reconstruct the night sky of biblical times to either validate or refute the existence of a “Xmas Star.” What it actually implied was not tantamount to my research, and neither do I claim my work was unique. I simply followed on from previous speculation and investigation from other similarly confused souls (err, no pun intended) like myself attempting to puzzle out another ‘fact’ or ‘fantasy’ story.

    We take too many things for granted today because we’ve become complacent. Here’s a tip – question everything, it’s called ‘curiosity and it’s what made us stop chiselling round wheels out of square blocks of stone and start building spaceships. I have a simple philosophy. Fill what is empty. Empty what’s full. And scratch where it itches

    The chronological baseline I used was Matthew’s version of the bible, the first book of the New Testament. Among all the conjecture, confusion, hyperbole, and general misinformation it’s the only one that has all the key players assembled in the same place in (generally) the same time.

    For the die-hards out there, here’s some of the text. Oh, and don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger, OK?

    “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him… After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Matthew 2

    The Christmas Star, or the Star of Bethlehem, is mentioned only in chapter two of the book of Matthew. But this story of a bright star leading the magi, or wise men, to the birth of Jesus Christ has become an iconic symbol of the Christmas season. It sounds fantastic, and even has miraculous or divine overtones, but it could have happened.

    The French scientist, Descartes once stated, “In order to reach the truth it is necessary, once in awhile, to put everything in doubt… as far as possible.” This rule seems to be very applicable to the discussion of the evolution of Christianity in our tragic time. I realised this story would become an emotive issue. It cuts to the very core of our existence and questions our very place in this amazing and complex Universe.

    I’ve received hundreds of emails from all around the world on this story with mixed and insightful sentiments. I’ve been featured on some of the biggest programs in the world, from a live spot on Romanian TV complete with interpreters (really!) and dozens of global radio stations to prime spots on major U.S. networked breakfast programs, like GMA – Good Morning America. The number of websites my story has appeared on is countless. I chuckled at a few abridged versions – one has me as a research “team leader” using “complex computer software” (its Starry Night guys) and another claims I’m trying to change the day Xmas is celebrated to June 17. Oh, I almost forgot the one where I declared Jesus to be a Gemini! Go figure.

    I must say, in researching this story, I’m surprised how there is no absolute, undisputed record of Jesus’ birth date and the date of his death. Indeed, many accounts place his existence in the 2nd, 4th and even 6th centuries BC! There is so much disagreement and general discord among students of the Bible about everything from actual dates key figures lived to whether in fact they existed at all. For instance, the biblical ‘Magi.’

    There is, I believe, no mention at all of December 25 in the Bible in connection with Jesus. Apparently it is an arbitrary figure laid down by the church, perhaps a dozen centuries ago, to celebrate or align with various religious festivals. I’m not a theologian, I’m not even scholastically gifted when it comes to biblical prophecy or the strict application of biblical verse, but I have my beliefs. In trying to unravel history the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered in my view.

    For arguably the most important person who ever lived, and someone who started a column of progress that still exists today with billions of followers, nobody can tell me with absolute unchallenged certainty when he walked the earth. It’s sad for I want it to be true! For most it is – but I just wanted some little bit of proof… can’t blame me for that, I’m human. I do however firmly believe this type of retrospective investigation, archaeo-astronomy if you will, is a minefield so badly populated with hidden traps, turns and disguised meanings it would be impossible for anyone to get to the truth. There are simply too many loose ends!

    OK, so what do we do with all this? So what if certain dates don’t relate to certain figures. It’s still a great story. We should stop right here and remember the reason we celebrate as we do this time of the year and ponder over the meaning of it all. For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who don’t understand … no explanation is possible.

    Merry Xmas.

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  2. Dave,

    Thanks for the clarification and taking the trouble to write such a thorough reply. From what you’ve said, I’m all the more convinced – as the title of my post half-suggests – there is sloppy journalism at work here. And – as I suggest at the end – combining it with that stupid sentence about Jesus being a Gemini – is an insult to astronomers. I hope you didn’t think I was criticising your scientific method. If that came across, I’d want to apologise. That was never meant.

    I’m very interested in your comments about the fact that we don’t have exact dates for Jesus’ birth and death. I think given the ancient world without today’s bureaucracy, and that Jesus appears to have been born and lived in an obscure backwater province in poverty, it’s hardly surprising on one level. Knowing the trouble my father has had tracing details of our family even back in the eighteenth century AD due to widespread illiteracy in the UK, we’re not going to have the records we might like.

    I am surprised, though, at the people who claim 2nd, 4th or 6th century BC dates for Jesus. As well as the New Testament documents having better attestation that virtually any other ancient writings from that time (more copies and a far shorter gap between our earliest extant copies and the autographs), there are the references to Jesus by the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish writer Josephus, both of which place him in the vicinity of the traditional dates. Then we get accounts of ruling Roman officials referring to problems with the first Christians, again at around the ‘right’ time.

    And in terms of Jesus’ death, there are certain guesses by biblical scholars based on trying to work out which Passover was happening when he was executed. But there is another issue of natural phenomena attached to that, albeit one that might interest the meteorologists as much as or more than the astronomers. Just as Matthew quotes the strange (to our ears) story of the star after the birth of Jesus, so in contrast at his death there is darkness over the land for three hours. I don’t know whether there has been serious research into that. Probably there has, and I’m just ignorant of it.

    I don’t blame you for wanting proof. Like you, I think the research is too filled with minefields to get it, but maybe decent evidence is possible, even if proof is elusive. I believe that for many Christians, some kind of explanation actually is needed (in contrast to your final paragraph), because if the Christian faith is not rooted in history, then it dissolves. Yes, for some Christians ‘no explanation is needed’, to use your words: they have a simple trust and that’s enough. But for others of us, we believe that faith is an act of trust based on having enough evidence to trust in the first place, and that’s why we get interested in these historical questions.

    I’m grateful for your contribution. All the best with your work and merry Christmas to you, too.

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  3. Dave,
    Thanks for this post. It’s so neat not only to hear about what happens over there, but to hear the dialog between yourself and the scientist. I’m very impressed with both of you. Well done. Always an interesting topic and you handled it well.

    Dan

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  4. Dave Reneke replies:
    I’d just like to say thank you to the sensible way you’ve all applied your various crtitiques to my article and the valued feedback I’ve received from it. Time to move on. This story has hit dozens of Christian based websites and I’ve been piloried on most of them.

    Unfortunately they’ve seen the rehashed version of my original work with all the colourful ‘journalese’ included, which I never wrote. This site is one of only two or three which has at least given me some respect and addressed my article in a reasoanbly rational manner. I thank you for it.

    Like you all I’m just a seeker of the truth… whatever that truth may turn out to be. This will surprise most of you – I’m also a practicing Christina! Wow, never expected that did you?

    Hey, let’s all lighten up. He lives! All the best for Xmas and the New Year to you too David.

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  5. Dan,

    Thanks for more kind words from you. I fear there is too much stupidity in Christian dialogue with scientists.

    Like

  6. Dave,

    Following on from what I’ve just said to Dan, thanks for your reply. Towards the end of my original post, I mentioned my father’s membership of the British Astronomical Association. He introduced me as a child to the wonders of the universe, although I can’t say I’ve kept it up – except that to see photos from Hubble or gaze into the night sky and see Orion is a thing of wonder for me. He and I are both Christians of an evangelical persuasion, but there is only one book I can ever remember him binning in disgust. It was some American fundamentalist nonsense (Hal Lindsey, I think) where he was so shocked with the ineptitude paraded as science that he couldn’t bear to have it in the house.

    I really wish we could have better conversations on science and theology, rather than finding that those who shout loudest are those who think that unless you are a young earth creationist you are not a Christian – not something I remember Jesus or Paul insisting on. Hence I am so sorry (but sadly not surprised) to read you saying you have been pilloried on several Christian websites.

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  7. Dave, David,
    My grandfather has a love of science that permeates just about everything he does. He even tells me that he wants me to talk about it at his funeral (he’s also a bit morbid at times). At any rate, he is as frustrated as you when Christians can’t handle science correctly. For those who enjoy science, it merely shows the way our Creator did his creating and the intricacies of his complex mind.
    My daughter has cystic fibrosis, and to think that I would throw away science because I believe in Genesis would be sad. Science might give us a cure for her someday, and I would be remiss to shy away from it.
    So thank you both for your great dialog. Very well done.

    Dan

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  8. Dan,

    We obviously have a little in common with our backgrounds. But I was very moved to read about your daughter. I may be thousands of miles away from you, but I can pray, so you are welcome to let me know if there are specific prayer requests, should you wish to do so.

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  9. I am agree with the David Reneker for the following reazon:

    1) The shepper never stay in the field in the night of winter season, only in the summer.
    2) Mary and joseph could not stay in a stablo of animals in winter season.
    3) All Gods of pagans population always were born on december 25, Examples: Buda of The Hindues, The Sun of Romans, Nimrod of Babilony Etc….

    Regards, Juan Garcia.

    Like

  10. Some Half-Baked Journalism About The Bethlehem Star And Jesus’ Date Of Birth

    THANK YOU, SIR!!! RIGHT-ON!!!

    Truth is sweet!

    mwc4God@yahoo.com

    Like

  11. Mike Calvert

    Some Half-Baked Journalism About The Bethlehem Star And Jesus’ Date Of Birth

    THANK-YOU, SIR!!! RIGHT-ON!!!

    Truth is sweet!

    Many Blessings!!!

    Like

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